Sunday, December 2, 2012

Gained in Translation

 I wrote this in an email to Ken Liu all the way back in February of 2011, almost two years ago, and let me start with an apology:
Just finished PAPER MENAGERIE.  Brilliant!  And gutsy.  Speaks to every first-gen kid who ever cringed to hear his parents mangle English.  Or cook ethnic food.  Or wear ethnic clothes.  Shares a theme with SIMULACRA -- reconciliation from beyond the grave.  That's certainly universal, Hamlet to Dune. [...]  Just an exquisite story.  I think this is the year you'll [...] possibly pick up one of the [...] major awards.
 Possibly pick up one?! 

Two mistakes in one short sentence. "Possibly" should have been "For dam' sure," and as for "one of the --"

Ken swept the major awards with PAPER MENAGERIE - Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy award, becoming the first short story writer to achieve this triple crown of speculative fiction. So much for my wishy-washy forecast.

One thing Ken's writing and mine have in common is that we are both bilingual - and even that is not a major similarity: Chinese (in which Ken is fluent) and Russian (which is my second language) are very different, opposite perhaps, in ways they influence writing patterns and sentence structure.

Let's take one of Ken's translations - from The Fish of Lijiang, by Chen Quifan:

In the waterways of Lijiang live schools of red fish. Whether it's dawn, dusk, or midnight, you can see them hovering in the water, facing the same direction, lined up like soldiers on a parade ground ready for inspection. But if you look closer, you'll see that they aren't really still. In fact, they're struggling against the current in order to maintain their position. Once in a while, one or two fish become tired and are pushed out of the formation by the current. But soon, tails fluttering, they struggle back into place.
And here is a passage from his own Paper Menagerie:
She turned the paper over and folded it again. She pleated, packed, tucked, rolled, and twisted until the paper disappeared between her cupped hands. Then she lifted the folded-up paper packet to her mouth and blew into it, like a balloon.
"Kan," she said. "Laohu." She put her hands down on the table and let go.
A little paper tiger stood on the table, the size of two fists placed together. The skin of the tiger was the pattern on the wrapping paper, white background with red candy canes and green Christmas trees.

 Deceptively simple, clear, declarative sentences; a sense of being in the middle of the story, an immediacy, a closeness - such is Ken's linguistic legacy. It goes without saying that he is easily a good enough writer to transcend it; but he is also good enough to employ it to magnificent ends when that is called for.

My own legacy is rather the opposite: the highly inflected nature of the Russian language that tags each word with its role in the greater sentence, allows the sentence to be scrambled in a variety of ways to change the nuances of meaning without changing the informational content, and leads to the unbridled, exuberant verbosity of, to name its most proficient practitioner, Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol:
"Wherever, across whatever sorrow sour life is woven of, a resplendent joy will gaily race by, just as a splendid carriage with golden harness, picture-book horses, and a shining brilliance of glass sometimes suddenly and unexpectedly goes speeding by some poor, forsaken hamlet that has never seen anything but a country cart, and for a long time the muzhiks stand gaping open-mouthed, not putting their hats back on, though the wondrous carriage has long since sped away and vanished from sight."
And, in a nod to Gogol's Dead Souls, I wrote this monstrosity of a sentence (exceeded in magnitude since then in the entries to the One Sentence Stories contest) for a story called "The Choir Invisible:"
 In an incalculable loss to the record of electronic creativity, it proved impossible for Unit 108763458 to provide a description of the look on its owner's face when he read the congratulatory epistle addressed to him; nor his mien when he considered the check attached therewith; nor several expressions, one after another, as the owner, for six long seconds – an eternity in electronic terms – stared at 108763458 itself before picking it up off the floor and summarily throwing it out the window.

None of which has much to do  with why I am writing this blog.

A funny thing happened to "Paper Menagerie:" it got translated into Russian.  Having experienced its magic in print and in podcast, I expected nothing new from the translation.

Boy, was I ever wrong.

The translation was better than fair; it was quite good. In technical terms, it did not reach the levels of Bulgakov and Pasternak translations (but then, nothing ever does) -- but its effect on me was shattering. It hit me like a ton of bricks aboard a speeding train, its emotional effect unblunted by my familiarity with the text or by the minor flaws of the translation.

I wrote Ken to tell him that, and he replied that of his several Chinese translations, there is one which he likes more than his own original. Which validates my point:

Language matters.

The term "First language" is ambiguous -- in my case at least, Russian is my chronologic first while English is the language in which I find it easier to speak, read, write, and communicate. And yet it is Russian that carries the most built-in emotional content, in which the words are spring-loaded and booby-trapped with meanings I do not entirely understand but certainly feel more than adequately.

Phrases in Russian push my buttons -- perhaps because the buttons were installed before I spoke any other language. I understand what loaded words are, I use them to the best of my ability, but what I realized when reading the translation of "Paper Menagerie" is the ineffable, unquantifiable, and perhaps unpredictable effect of language, of the way, perhaps, the first language to which a developing mind is exposed can leave its imprints even when another language supplants the first in the superficial layer of the consciousness.

There is a deeper layer than that, which is a matter for a later post, suffice it to say that not only is it non-verbal, it's also neither auditory nor visual.

And here is the story that tapped into that. With a vengeance.

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